For the Birds Radio Program: Ludwig the Blue Jay

Original Air Date: June 9, 1989

Laura talks about the first Blue Jay she got to know personally. 3:59

Audio missing


(Recording of a Blue Jay)

The Blue Jay is my favorite bird, but explaining why is a little like trying to explain why I chose one particular person to marry—in matters of love you just trust your instincts. All I know for sure is, my love affair with Blue Jays began with a little fledgling named Ludwig.

I first came upon Ludwig in a grassy park outside of Madison, Wisconsin, when I was birding with a friend. The baby jay was fooling around on a slide in the playground—fluttering up as far as he could get, then gleefully sliding down, just to struggle up and slide down again. My friend took some pictures before we left the little guy to his game.

But after I got home, I began to feel uneasy about the fledgling. I went back to check on him, and arrived just in time—a golden retriever was carrying him around in his mouth. Fortunately goldens are nice dogs, and this one handed the bird to me without any argument.

But no parent jays were scolding me or terrorizing the dog—it just didn’t make sense. Then I looked up and saw an adult jay carrying food right above me and across the park into a big oak without paying any attention to the baby at all—something I’d never known any adult jay to do. So I brought the fledgling home. It took me a couple of days to figure out exactly why his parents had abandoned him—it was because he was mute. Baby jays are supposed to be noisy little beggars, yet this one was silent. His parents must have figured he was defective, or maybe not even a real jay, and didn’t know what to do about him. I erroneously assumed he was deaf, and so I named him Ludwig.

The summer Ludwig lived in our four-room apartment was one of the jolliest ever. I have lots of stories about him, but my favorite is about the bell from a Pit Game. I used to keep it on my desk in my junior high classroom to ring when I wanted quiet. The last day of school, I brought it home and set it on the dining room table. Ludwig came over to inspect it, and I rang it for him. He was amazed, and tried to ring it himself. He could see that the button on top did the ringing, but in order to hit it with his beak, his chest pressed against the bell, dampening the sound. Ludwig was still puzzling it out when my husband and I went to another room to watch TV. About a half hour later, we suddenly heard the bell ring once. “He got lucky,” we guessed. A good fifteen minutes later, the bell rang again. A minute later it rang again—and then again, and again, and again, and again—Now he rang it at least 50 times in succession. I ran out to see how he had mastered it, and found him hovering in midair to keep his body from touching the bell while he hit the button over and over with his beak. He wore the happiest and proudest expression I’ve ever seen on a bird. After he mastered the bell, he didn’t pay much attention to it anymore, but every now and then when he was passing by, he’d ring it once or twice for the heck of it, or maybe just to prove he still knew how, and then he’d go on about his business again.

The Wisconsin D.N.R. refused to give me or my school a permit to keep him, even though he never did learn to sound much like a normal jay, and I eventually had to release him. He came back to our yard the following spring, harrassed a neighbor, and peeked into our windows, but we were gone for the weekend, and never saw him again. Jays live a long time, and every time I see one now, I wonder whether this one couldn’t maybe be Ludwig, or one of his children or grandchildren. Ludwig was a hard act to follow, but every time I come to know a jay personally, he or she turns out to be an interesting character. Jays are funny and smart and handsome and—well, they’re just JAYS, and I love them, and that’s all there is to it.

(Recording of a Blue Jay)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”